Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The air car concept

The continuing meltdown of the economy, along with the recent election, have increased my interest in the "green economy" and new technology companies that might be overlooked.

The car industry is a perfect example. While Congress and the next administration consider a bailout of Detroit auto makers, most of the real innovation is happening in smaller companies. The Tesla Roadster and Miles XS500 electric vehicles have gotten some attention. But both these companies are privately funded by venture capitalists. Neither offer opportunities for small individual investors.

One zero emission vehicle concept that does offer such an opportunity is the Air Car, a vehicle that runs on compressed air. This concept is the brainchild of a MDI, a company based in Luxembourg with a factory in France.

The concept of a car that runs on air may sound like science fiction, but the concept is simple and there is nothing in it that violates the laws of physics. Air is compressed to very high pressure and discharged gradually to run an air piston in an engine. The rest of the technology refines and improves that simple concept.

The French inventor, Guy Negre, seems to have serious engineering credentials. He has invested over 15 years in developing the technology, and has earned 13 US patents alone in his name.

The MDI web site claims that their CityFlowAir urban family car can be recharged in a few minutes at a specialized high-pressure air-recharging station (not the air pump at your local gas station today) or in a few hours using plug-in electricity to run an air compressor. It also has a small gas burner for heating the air to extend range and speed for highway driving. The air tanks are carbon fiber. MDI claims the technology to be cost competitive with hybrid and electric vehicles.

MDI also has an interesting industrial concept for regional factories that are also dealerships. A US company called Zero Pollution Motors has purchased the rights to build one of these plants and to sell the Air Car in the United States, and claims it will deliver its first vehicles in 2010.

ZPM is actively seeking investors. ZPM has also entered the Automotive X Prize competition and is seeking sponsors.

Questions remain to be answered for me about this concept. Air compressors are inefficient, so I wonder how the wells-to-wheels efficiency compared to a plug-in hybrid, electric, or fuel cell vehicle concepts. I also wonder about the safety and failure modes of the compressed air tanks. The car is also extremely light-weight so crash protection is a concern. Similar safety questions have been raised about hydrogen storage tanks though and that has not stopped many people, myself included, from investing in fuel cell technology.

The air car concept has some advantages. Many gas stations already have air compressors, so installing high-pressure air compressors at gas stations is not hard to imagine. Even where such stations are not yet available, the ability to recharge the car using electricity and the onboard plug-in seems no more onerous than for plug-in hybrids or electric cars.

Overall, the air car technology seems promising enough to watch closely over the next few years. It seems too early to predict which technology will eventually replace the gasoline car. This may be one of the contenders. Whatever the future of the air car, I commend the inventor for taking his idea as far as he has.

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